Imagine this: you wake up on a lazy Sunday morning, trudging your way to the fridge only to be welcomed with the smell of something rotting. Did the meat expire sooner than expected? We’ve all been there. Rui Xu, a graduate of Royal College of Art (RCA), London found herself in a similar situation where she increasingly grew aware of how much food went to waste. In 2011, the Food and Argricultural Organization found that 1/3rd of the food produced globally was lost or wasted in a year alone. Not only is this an environmental concern, but is also proving to be an economic one. FreshTag is Xu’s innovative solution that aims to reduce food waste and its undesirable reactions, especially in human health and wellbeing.
A materials designer and an entrepreneur based in London with a fashion and smart textiles background, Rui Xu set up FreshTag in 2019. “It's a smart and sustainable packaging startup and I'm currently working at the intersection of design materials, food science and technologies to explore intelligent packaging solutions for food products and to challenge the global food waste issue.” Collaborating with advisors from food science and technology, Xu brought to the fore her materials design background in order to address a growing issue. She recognised that a crucial aspect in packaging systems is the need for change from the generic 'best before' and 'use by' dating mechanism to a more adaptable, and dynamic monitoring system. FreshTag is the tool that she proposes can offer information about the food and environmental conditions in real-time, detecting and indicating food freshness through changes in color. “The mechanism behind the technology is just monitoring and reporting the macro-level changes with the biochemical and microbiological changes taking place within food and to precisely report the exact date of freshness, tracking the change in quality from freshly bought to best before until expiry with visual cues.”
A crucial aspect in packaging systems is the need for change from the generic 'best before' and 'use by' dating mechanism to a more adaptable, and dynamic monitoring system.
Taking forward her graduation project of the same name, FreshTag is now a start-up that is fully dedicated to producing pH sensitive packaging solutions to reduce food waste and reduce consumers’ dependence on plastic packaging and unreliable expiry dates. The mechanism of the technology lies behind a special ink that changes color in the presence of ammonia and carbon dioxide using inkjet printing technology. “The reason why we use the inkjet rather than the smart labels or some color changing film because it is easier to. You are accepted by the market and it is very low cost to get into the existing packaging industries. The ink can be printed on the paper or on plastic film, and the system can report the real state of food.” Xu’s team developed this ink on their own with plant and fruit extracts based on existing inventions of a similar kind. Their aim is to take what is already known and improve its stability and sensitivity, using multiple indicators to create reliability of the detection process. “We want to create a more straightforward way to connect with the consumers. Sometimes the scientific or the laboratory result might not be easy for the public to understand. So what I want to do is to merge design with science to make this scientific result more straightforward and understandable.”
I want to merge design with science to make this scientific result more straightforward and understandable.
An interesting way of visualizing dynamic data, FreshTag shifts the focus from unreliable use dates that are often not accurate to visual aids that are scientifically backed. “I think it cannot replace existing date code labeling, but it can be an assistant to help people know the actual date of expiry. It really depends on the storage conditions, the distributions and handlings of the product. It can be an assistant to help people to determine if they can or cannot eat something anymore.” Though geared around packaging, Xu is clear in asserting that her ultimate goal with this product is to target food waste as opposed to solely creating a brand of sustainable food packaging. Her current efforts are to urge manufacturers and packing suppliers to integrate FreshTag’s ink into their current systems. “Just replace the ink, other than that they don’t need to do any extra training either, they don't need to change equipment. It has had quite the transformative journey from the start to now.”
Xu’s graduation project at RCA, the idea for the project was sparked off by an experience that is commonplace in a household. “I'm a food lover and especially love seafood but I am always confused when I come back home and open the fridge only to have nothing to cook. I have noticed that the seabass I bought 3 days ago has passed its use by date, but it still looks good. Yet when I smell it, it’s not quite fresh; it kind of smells like ammonia. So it’s always tricky to decide if I should eat it or throw it. Sometimes I feel really guilty for the food that was not consumed in time, and this really inspired me to think about how to use design tools to reduce food waste, especially due to the date code expiry.” What fuelled her project further was the data research that revealed alarming statistics about food waste. While a third of the food meant for human consumption is wasted every year, the UK remains the largest producer of food waste, wasting almost 7,000,000 tonnes of food every year costing average taxpayers over £700 annually. “I think that the project is a direct response to the social food issues, especially the issue due to the date code labeling, since those can be avoided. According to the European Commission, over 50% of food is generated in on a household level and up to 10% of waste is linked to the date marking system. 58% of consumers say they always look at date marking while shopping or preparing meals but less than one in two people understand its meaning. The result is 6 billion worth of food waste that was simply due to the date code expiry.”
58% of consumers say they always look at date marking while shopping or preparing meals but less than one in two people understand its meaning. The result is 6 billion worth of food waste that was simply due to the date code expiry.
With initial funding from RCA, Xu was able to take off her project to a more corporate level. Understanding the importance of policy action in the implementation of FreshTag, Xu is simultaneaously working on bringing legislation that allows FreshTag in the market as an aid to the existing date code system. “I know the project is directly responding to the social food issues, but it will like also directly address, for example, UK or the global taxpayers to save the about over £700 annually and also reducing the cost of waste disposal within local governments, while also positively affect the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions. I think most importantly it advocates to reduce the iniquities of the food system.”
Xu hopes that one day consumer will be able to buy a FreshTag at the supermarket that can be used at home to test the freshness of their produce.
Inspired by Peter Thiel’s book ‘Zero to One’, Xu hopes that one day consumer will be able to buy a FreshTag at the supermarket that can be used at home to test the freshness of their produce. “My goal is to take this technology and make it work everywhere. The aim is to take this technology from one to a hundred, a thousand and, millions. So that's why I really need to find some market and market friendly entry approach to move this technology forward. Our biggest challenge, the next step is to find some collaborations to work together and get some real feedback from the consumers with the hope to create regional impact.”
This interview was conducted as part of the research for the Embassy of Food 2021. Curators Annelies Hermsen and Chloé Rutzerveld selected seven projects and spoke with the makers designers about technology, food waste, health, education, protein transition, non-food and packaging. Collaborating with Next Nature Network, these interviews were edited and published. The Embassy of Food is made possible in part by the DOEN Foundation, Prince Bernhard Cultuur Fonds, Albert Heijn and the Dutch Design Foundation.